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Florida may get to sing a different tune

Even at official events, 'Old Folks at Home' is snubbed. A contest for a new anthem has boiled down to three songs.

January 06, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Whenever Floridians sing their state song at sporting events, school recitals and inaugurations, voices trail off in the third line of the chorus as the politically correct skip over or mumble the most offensive of its lyrics.

"Old Folks at Home," the official Florida ballad that voices an illiterate slave's nostalgia for the Suwannee River, has been a source of embarrassment and discord for decades for its allusions to "darkeys" and "longing for de old plantation."

The song, written by Pennsylvanian Stephen C. Foster in 1851 and adopted by Florida 84 years later, may soon be consigned, though, to the dustbin of the outdated.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist nixed the song from his inauguration a year ago, giving critical mass to a campaign underway since the 1960s civil rights movement to replace the ode, commonly known as "the Swanee River song," with one more reflective of modern Florida.

The Florida Music Educators Assn. has been conducting a contest -- "Just Sing, Florida" -- for a new state song since April. A panel of music teachers listened to 243 entries submitted over six months, pared down the field to 20 and then to three.

The new song will be announced Friday, and two state lawmakers intend to submit a bill to make it the official replacement for Foster's.

"There just comes a point in time when you need to make a change. We're not throwing the old song away; we're just retiring it," said state Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat. "It should go into an archive or a museum where people can see that was the Florida of 1935. But it's not the Florida of 2008 -- a darkey longing for his plantation."

The contest was organized and financed by private donations, but it has had the support of top Tallahassee politicians tired of having the state song snubbed on official occasions.

Crist said the Swanee River song "does not represent the people of Florida." At his inauguration, he asked Florida State University professor Charles Atkins to play his contemporary "Florida's Song," which was entered into the contest but failed to make the cut.

Three entries, all praising the safe virtues of Florida's natural beauty, were selected by the teachers in December. Any Florida resident can listen to the songs online and cast a vote at www.justsingflorida.org, where 4,500 people recorded their choices in the first five days of balloting in December, said Carmen White, spokeswoman for the music teachers association.

The top vote-getter will be announced at noon Friday at the association's annual convention in Tampa and sung by the local King High School chorus that has been practicing all three: "Florida, Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky," by Jan Hinton of Pompano Beach; "My Florida Home," by Christopher Marshall of Orlando; and "Florida, My Home," by Carl Ashley of Boynton Beach and Betsy Dixon of Lantana.

Still, despite Florida's diversity and the control of both state houses in the hands of the governor's party, swapping the oft-criticized song for the contest winner is anything but a done deal.

Lawmakers tried in 1988 and again in 1997 to retire "Old Folks at Home," only to have its supporters prevail in keeping it on grounds of tradition.

Hill said he was somewhat more optimistic about getting the bill to a vote this time because, for the first time, the Swanee River song naysayers will have an alternative at hand. His office has been flooded with calls from advocates of change, but also from irate traditionalists who see the Swanee River ode as a historical snapshot.

Even State Rep. Ed Homan, a Tampa Republican who co-sponsored the bill with Hill because a constituent submitted the first contest entry, says he has his doubts about the proposed change.

"The people who recorded the songs are the people who wrote them. They didn't get Celine Dion to perform them," he said, suggesting that the entries suffer from amateur presentation.

"The idea originally was driven by a political correctness thing, the diversity issue," said Homan. "But when it comes to actually voting or trying to get a likable song -- I just don't know if we can do it."

Even some of the finalists see cultural and historical value in Foster's tribute to the north Florida river, the spelling of which he altered to fit the cadence of music he wrote without any particular place in mind.

Hinton, a British-born elementary music teacher in Fort Lauderdale and one of the three vying for the "Just Sing, Florida" title, acknowledged that politics and sentimentality may converge to keep the "Old Folks at Home": "I think it's a piece of history. I know a lot of people are upset about some words that seem to be racist. But a lot of people don't want the song changed because they don't want to lose that piece of history."

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